Syria war: ‘We expend the one thing we have, men. Men are dying’
Three weeks after Syrian rebels entered the northern town of Aleppo, ammunition supplies had dwindled to 600 bullets and six rockets, resulting in a very bloody stalemate with Assad’s forces. But despite a ‘rotten’ process, supplies are finally on their way
The rusting green Mercedes truck could have been mistaken for a removal lorry. It was parked in a narrow street outside a luxurious villa a short distance from the Turkish border, and the arms and legs of chairs and tables protruded from the tarpaulin that covered the back. Beneath the furniture, however, was 450,000 rounds of ammunition and hundreds of rocket-propelled grenades destined for the Syrian rebels in Aleppo.
Inside the villa two rebel commanders and a chubby civilian in jeans and T-shirt were exchanging pieces of paper, which the civilian signed. He issued a series of instructions to the men outside, who began transferring crates into the commanders’ white Toyota pickup.
“All what I want from you is that you shoot a small video and put it on YouTube, stating your name and your unit, and saying we are part of the Aleppo military council,” the civilian told one of the commanders, who fought with the Islamist Tawheed brigade. “Then you can do whatever you want. I just need to show the Americans that units are joining the council.
“I met two Americans yesterday in Antakya (Turkey). They told me that no advanced weapons would come to us unless we were unified under the leadership of the local military councils. So shoot the video and let me handle the rest.” Looking in the back, it was clear the ammunition was new. The RPG rounds were still wrapped in plastic.
An orange flash
It was past midnight in Aleppo when Captain Abu Mohamed and Captain Abu Hussein received a phone call informing them the ammunition from Turkey had arrived. Abu Mohamed, a portly 28-year-old member of Aleppo military council, perched unsteadily on a plastic chair in a garage on the edge of the Salah al-Din neighbourhood. He had a handsome face and a great round belly. He and Abu Hussein, a short man with a blond goatee, had been close friends since they were cadets in Aleppo military academy. Abu Mohamed had defected first. Abu Hussein followed him a couple of months later.
Abu Mohamed described where the weapons had come from. Different donors in Saudi Arabia were channelling money to a powerful Lebanese politician in Istanbul, he said. He in turn co-ordinated with the Turks – “everything happens in co-ordination with Turkish intelligence” – to arrange delivery through the military council of Aleppo, a group composed mostly of defected officers and secular and moderate civilians.
Because of its virtual monopoly on ammunition supplies, the council has grown into a significant force in the Syrian civil war, rivalling existing powers like the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist factions.
Stirred into action by the phone call, the two captains raced an old pickup through the dark streets near the front line, under a steady rain of shells. A few rebels, taking cover behind the corners of buildings, shouted at them to switch off their headlights. The captains continued in darkness and a state of burning paranoia, conjuring a sniper behind every shutter and a government tank on every street corner.
They parked the pickup at their rendezvous point in front of a school and waited for the cargo to arrive. An orange flash burst from a balcony in front of them, followed by a loud explosion and the jangle of shrapnel rattling the roof of the car. A shell had hit the building less than 50 metres away. It was enough for Abu Mohamed. “Let’s go find some food,” he said, crunching the pickup into gear and speeding away.
‘We don’t have the ammunition we were promised’
The rebel plan for the assault on Aleppo had been simple, Abu Mohamed said. They were told by the leadership that if they took the fight to the heart of the city, the supply lines would flow. But three weeks after the rebels entered the town, the ammunition for a front stretching from the Saif al-Dawla boulevard in the north to the Salah al-Din neighbourhood in the south-west had dwindled to 600 bullets and six RPG rockets. The lines were close to collapse.
“They told us to start the rebellion and then we would get support,” Abu Mohamed said. “The city was divided into three sectors and we split our forces and ammunition between the three fronts, but we didn’t imagine that we would enter Aleppo so easily. We took 60% of the city in the first few days. We overstretched our units, while the regime had decided to concentrate all his power to fight in one sector, Salah al-Din.”
“We started pulling resources from the two other sectors and concentrated them here. At the same time the support we were promised stopped. That led to all three sectors buckling at the same time. We don’t have the ammunition we were promised. Every day the [Syrian] army is pushing forwards. So we expend the one thing we have, men. Men are dying.”
Over the following days, a small amount of ammunition trickled to the rebels. The two captains piled an old Lada high with crates of bullets and drove a dozen times along sniper-infested streets to resupply the fighters at the fronts in Salah al-Din and Saif al-Dawla, handing bullets and rockets to the different units, noting the names of the recipients and the numbers of rounds they had been given in a small ledger. It was one of the most perilous jobs in Aleppo.
They raced through the desolate Saif al-Dawla neighbourhood one morning, ducking low in their seats as they crossed intersections to avoid the snipers. A crisp breeze carried the oppressive smell of death and festering garbage. Fresh black smoke was rising from the campus of the University of Science.
Their first meeting that morning was with Haji Bilal, a tall, wiry young man who had been a farmer before the revolution, but who had been transformed over months of fighting into a commander of a group of a dozen of his cousins and clansmen.
Bilal was holding an intersection in Saif al-Dawla, but with his new ammunition he wanted to push a couple of kilometres down the road towards Aleppo’s huge sports stadium complex, which was being used by government forces as a base for troops, tanks and artillery. After a short discussion about tactics, the two captains moved on to their next meeting, with a group of foreign jihadis who were fighting to regain a frontline they had lost a few hours earlier near the university.
‘They are rotten, playing with us’
That night the two captains grabbed what sleep they could in a commandeered apartment whose luxurious gold-painted chairs, pink plastic flip flops and school books spoke of a different, better era. The floor was strewn with the contents of their guerrilla existence: ammunition pouches, webbing and weapons, empty ration packets, spilled rice and plastic bottles. A golden fish was dying slowly in a glass tank filled with yellowish green water.
The captains’ uniforms stank and were caked with salt. “I have been fighting for eight months non-stop,” Abu Mohamed said, his head hanging wearily on his chest. “Sometimes I feel not only pain and fatigue but also boredom.”
Later, Abu Hussein’s brother arrived. He was a broad-shouldered major, the commander of a big rebel battalion that fought on the eastern side of Aleppo around the castle. “I know you are not taking care of my brother,” he barked at Abu Mohamed in a loud, cheerful voice. “You are sending him to the front alone. I am going to stay for a few days to take care of him.”
The major had been in Turkey looking for funds, and had now decided to spend a few days with Abu Hussein before heading to his battalion. He described the difficulty of finding money and supplies across the border. “I tell you it’s rotten up there,” he said. “Everyone is willing to pay you just a little bit to buy you – the Muslim brotherhood, [the defected air force colonel] Riad al-Assad. They are rotten, playing with us. I sat for three weeks waiting there and nothing came.”
He had met the former head of the transitional national council, Burhan Ghalioun, in Turkey. “He took me with him into a meeting in Istanbul. I love this man, we met a prince in the Qatari armed forces. We talked and explained everything and he had an idea of what was going on, but he said the good times were coming soon. We left with nothing.
“One of his men gave us some useful advice. He said if we all pointed our guns at a Mig fighter at once it would come down.”
The three officers burst out laughing.
‘Human beings shouldn’t see things like this’
The following morning, wind rustled the curtains in the shattered window frames of the apartment block. The shelling had continued all night, and at around 8am the Syrian troops added mortars to the bombardment.
The captains set out to do their rounds, heading out to inspect the frontlines at the edge of Salah al-Din. There they found a collection of bodies.
Two men lay next to each other in the middle of the street. One, wearing a clean maroon T-shirt and white trousers, was on his back, his arms and legs splayed out, his face swollen into deep blue and grey shades and his mouth open. His head rested on a pile of garbage – small, dried shrivelled fruit spilled from a small bag he was carrying.
The corpse next to him lay on his face, a big pool of dried blood covered the space between him and a black bicycle. A thick layer of flies covered the heads of the two men and when Captain Abu Hussein went close by to look they flew up in humming clouds of disgust.
A few metres down the road a yellow taxi stood in the middle of the road, the windshield riddled with 18 bullet holes. Inside, under a thick layer of flies, were the bodies of a man and a woman. From their positions it seemed that in their last movements the man had tried to shield her, and she had tried to hide beneath him. In the back seat lay a dead child.
A short distance further up the street another body with a smashed face lay next to a garbage dump. All the bodies had swollen to become stout and plump, and the smell of death floated over the rancid stench of decomposing rubbish.
A rebel sniper, walked with us to where the first two bodies lay. He was a hard looking man, short and solemn. He took us to the entrance of a building.
“I was standing here when this man was shot,” he said indicating the man in the maroon T-shirt. “He said he needed to get to his house. I shouted at him, telling him not to go. They shot him, but he wasn’t dead. I tried to help but when I put out my head the sniper shot at me.” He pointed at a neat line of five bullets on the edge of the wall next to us.
“He said ‘I kiss your hands. Help me.'” The rebel told the injured man to roll his body over towards him, but instead he had flipped over in the other direction. “He stopped talking and I left him,” the man said.
Abu Mohamed stood next to the bodies holding his mouth and closing his eyes. He looked shattered. “Human beings shouldn’t see things like this,” he said. “How will we go back to our lives?”
“Do we have lives?” Abu Hussein said.
‘The haji is dead’
By midday, the bodies had become part of the landscape. Fighters walked past without registering them. A small supply truck carrying food and drink for the fighters parked next to the taxi full of bodies and the flies buzzed between the rebels’ water can and the dried patches of blood in the street.
As the two captains left, driving their Lada up Saif al-Dawla boulevard to inspect the northern part of the frontline, two men arrived in a small truck to take the body that lay next to the bicycle. He was their brother.
A skirmish was taking place in the middle of the boulevard. Bilal had led his small unit down a side street and was advancing towards the government base in the stadium complex. The thuds of artillery fire rocked the street and the crackle of machine guns echoed between the deserted buildings.
A big man came running up, covered with dust and sweat. “We advanced,” he gasped. “They started shelling us. There are injured. The haji is dead!”
Abu Hussein could not contain his agitation, wanting to join the fight, but in few minutes a group of men arrived in a small van carrying the body of young Haji Bilal. Abu Mohamed drove his small Lada to rescue the rest of the unit. They piled on top of it and he reversed, screeching, back into the main street.
In front of the supply van another man, one of Bilal’s cousins, opened his hands and lowered his head and began to scream, running around in a tight circle. Abu Hussein held him, but the man tried to wrestle himself free. He wailed, rocking himself forward and backward.
They carried the body and laid it on the floor, his men gathered around him, touching him kissing his bloody face.
Abu Hussein’s brother, the major, had been in the skirmish with Bilal. We drove to a small cafe that had become a resting place for the fighters. The major gulped cold water. Abu Mohamed seemed to have reached breaking point. “You meet a guy for a day or two in battle and you feel you have known him for a long time,” he said. “The trouble with simple people like Haji Bilal is they see an officer and think he knows everything. They put their trust in him.”
‘I am happy when fighting’
“He asked me about the attack [near the stadium] and I gave him ammunition for it. I feel it’s my fault. I am responsible.”
The major, by contrast, was elated. He told us how the Syrian army had fired mortars at them, killing Bilal and injuring another fighter. The major had then carried the injured fighter on his back as they retreated. “I followed them because I didn’t want the civilians to call me a defected military officer, a coward,” he said.
He turned to Abu Mohamed. “You know when you are in the middle of battle and mortars start slamming the earth around you, you forget all your fears and there is a strange joy and happiness. I am so happy when I am fighting,” he said, his eyes sparkling.
The next day found Abu Hussein and Abu Mohamed hugging and weeping like children in the shadow of Aleppo’s castle. The quirky and affectionate major lay dead next to them. A single sniper bullet had entered his neck. There was a splash of blood on his right cheek.
The major was laid in a coffin and covered with laurel branches. Abu Hussein held his head between his hands and wept, repeating “thanks be to God” over and over.
The captains returned to the apartment, where Abu Hussein collapsed on a sofa and buried his weeping face on his friend’s chest.
The names of captains Abu Hussein and Abu Mohamed have been changed to protect their identities